Hamas the Likely Victor in Palestinian Elections

Senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniya waves during a press conference in Gaza City Jan. 26.

Senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniya waves during a press conference in Gaza City Jan. 26. Getty Images hide caption

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The Islamic Hamas movement appears to have won Wednesday's Palestinian parliamentary elections. An official announcement will be made later Thursday. The apparent victory for Hamas, a sworn enemy of Israel, will have major implications for the Middle East peace process.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. The Islamist militant group, Hamas, appears to have won an outright victory in yesterday's Palestinian Parliamentary elections. Official results are expected later today. The apparent win by Hamas, a sworn enemy of Israel, will have major implications for Palestinians, Israel, and the international community.

NPR's Eric Westervelt joins us now from Gaza City. Hello.

ERIC WESTERVELT, reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What are Hamas supporters saying about how their side won?

WESTERVELT: Well, yes, many of them went to bed last night, thinking they had done well in yesterday's elections, but they woke up this morning, and found out they're in power. I've been out on the streets of Gaza City and surrounding areas, talking with Hamas supporters this morning, and many said, look, Hamas was just better organized. They made great efforts to drive people to the polls, and to get out the vote, get their message out.

Many Hamas supporters also argue, of course, that they had God on their side. This is an Islamist fundamentalist movement. But the dominant theme, Renee, among those who voted for Hamas, was corruption within Fatah, real and perceived. And I think some of the hardcore Hamas supporters, mixed with other Palestinian voters, who were not necessarily big Hamas activists, but they had a real throw-the-bums-out attitude toward Fatah, a sense that Fatah had a chance to lead, and that they failed.

I even talked to one Hamas supporter today, who said, look, some of these guys who may have stolen money that was intended for the Palestinian people, they should be rooted out, they should be prosecuted, and he thought that should be a priority for Hamas. So, it was really a mixture of the base of support for Hamas, mixing with other Palestinians, who said, look, we need a change, and Fatah is out of touch.

MONTAGNE: Fata, of course, the power up until now in the Palestinian authority. What's the reaction from Fatah?

WESTERVELT: Well, a bit of shell shock here, this morning, Renee. Last night, young Fatah gunmen, masked, were in the streets, waving the Fatah flag up until midnight, one in the morning, shooting their AK-47s into the air, celebrating what they thought was a narrow victory. To wake up now and find out that, although official results aren't in, that Fatah's essentially out of power, in the Palestinian Parliament, anyway.

There's some anger among Fatah volunteers and activists, who said, how could they have done us wrong and let us get to this point that we lose to Hamas? Other Fatah candidates throughout the area, are literally locked in their homes. They're not responding to phone calls, or you go to their gate, and there are armed guards saying, he's asleep and he's not talking to the press. So, there's a bit of anger mixed with a bit of surprise. Everyone knew Hamas would do well in yesterday's vote, but they did not expect, what one official here called, a Hamas landslide.

MONTAGNE: And does all this mean Palestinians are headed for some sort of coalition government?

WESTERVELT: Well, I think it does. I talked to some officials this morning, who said, look, this power sharing arrangement, it's really the only option. One guy, who has played a key role in some of the negotiations between Fatah and Hamas in the past, Ziyad Abu Amer, he said this power sharing will be the only path, although, he acknowledged, it'll be a totally new situation, and there's a lot of unanswered questions. Fatah has dominated Palestinian politics for years.

Should be noted that while Palestinian Authority's Cabinet resigned en masse today, the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas is popularly elected. He remains in that post, has three more years in there. But he, now, has to appoint a new Prime Minister in coming days. Could be a Prime Minister from Hamas, but it doesn't have to be. The Prime Minister than creates a new Cabinet. And it looks like that Cabinet has to be approved by a Parliament that is now controlled by Hamas.

MONTAGNE: And, Eric, what are the implications for peacemaking?

WESTERVELT: Well, it has huge implications for this already stalled peace process. One shopkeeper I talked with today near the Islamic University, said, quote, "Now, we will show the Israelis we're strong," and he talked about what he saw as the need to attack Israel. So, talking tough against the Israelis plays well with Hamas' base of support, for sure. But will Hamas politicians, now, behave differently now that they have real political power and have to share that power, and will be in the Parliament? That's a big unanswered question. Hamas has abided by the truce negotiated 11 months ago, but it's not clear yet they'll continue to abide by that.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Eric Westervelt in Gaza City, thanks, Eric.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

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